Coffee cups and cypress knees (Indie 30 – Day 10 Earth)

Coffee cups and cypress knees (Indie 30 – Day 10 Earth)

BootsnAll prompt: At what point in your travels have you felt most in tune with the Earth? Share a story of how you interacted with the local environment or nature.

My friend Janice just left my house. We drank coffee with lots of milk and talked about poetry, knitting, memoir, free writing, cars, our MFA careers, Morning Pages, and Natalie Goldberg. When I saw today’s prompt, I immediately thought of the Atchafalaya in Lousiana, which is where I got to know Janice. For our MFA studies we took a two-week trip in May 2009 to Louisiana with the amazing writer Sheryl St. Germain who is from Louisiana and was so willing to show us her home.


I first got to know Janice in New Orleans where we began our trip. I’m thinking longingly now of hot afternoons with cups of chicory coffee spent writing in our journals and talking about all the things we were already learning. Even in the city of New Orleans, I felt closer to Earth than I do in most cities. Before even reaching the Atchafalaya I was writing about nature. I wrote about the Mississippi River that we dunked our feet in on a hot afternoon between a lunch of muffuletta sandwiches and a snack of beignets. I wrote about the oak trees because they reminded me of the one that grew in my backyard as a child – it was thick and tall with branches as thick as my young body.


After a week in New Orleans, we set out for Cajun country. We stayed in cabins on a bayou. Mine was Elvis themed. I enjoyed sitting on my back porch to watch the stars at night and getting up early to write in the restaurant before breakfast when it was just Rocky cooking and talking to his friends who stopped by for coffee. Some mornings Janice or other coffee-drinking writer friends would join me.

Sheryl introduced us to some local friends of hers and we set off for the swamp. We clambered into their boats and took off for a tour of their home landscape. They showed us crawfish traps, caught catfish, stood on beaver dams, and taught us to spot alligators. We helped Greg spot cypress logs floating in the water. He takes fallen wood, mills it, and turns it into art or furniture.

I could feel the wetness of the swamp as we skimmed across the water. Even the air was damp, more than humid, but not unpleasant – a refreshing almost swimming feeling deep among the trees in the swamp and then a dry breeze would sweep across to cool us in the open waters. The swamp was a patchwork of color: bright green water hyacinth with pale purple flowers, shades of gray in the sky, the water, the Spanish moss. I liked the shape of the cypress trees, round and rough with bends at the knees, cracks and crags in their bark.


The next day, Greg took us to the sawmill with him to mill the cypress he had pulled from the swamp the day before. The mill was small – a shed behind a house fitted to mill one tree at a time, carefully and with more human labor than machine work. The blade buzzed as it cut through the cypress logs, but someone had to push the blade cleanly through the log each time to cut the boards.

We helped by lifting the freshly hewn boards from remainder of the log underneath. It took two or three of us to lift each damp, rough but somehow soft piece of wood. The wood came out in various shades of brown; some boards had broad reddish stripes, others were tan with darker pinstripes, and some were a color I can only call mahogany even though the wood was cypress.


In the shade of the shed, sweat dribbled down my face, sawdust clung to my hair, dirt clung to the underside of my fingernails as I helped lift board after board from tree to truck. The sawdust smelled clean and fresh.

Later, as I showered, I felt as if I were taking something away from myself – removing myself from the natural world and coming back to the world of cell phones and digital cameras. Despite having my camera with me throughout my time in the swamp and at the sawmill, I had begun to feel disconnected from it and more connected to dirt and water. I wanted to stay in that place where I was connected to the land, the place where I could see the shades of brown in the cypress boards, the place where I could close my eyes and smell the water, the place where I could hear birdsong uninterrupted by my own thoughts. But I knew as I rinsed the apple shampoo and sawdust from my hair that I would always be called back to the modern world that is often so far removed from leaves and dirt.

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